Rock Climbing – Top Tips to Prevent Overuse Injuries

climber at Smith Rock State Park
Bren Schmidt
PT, MPT
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With the exceptional fall weather settled in on us in Central Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest, rock climbers of all experience levels and abilities are packing their cars with gear and heading out to enjoy the optimal climbing conditions at Smith Rock and numerous other crags throughout the Cascades.

As the heat of summer gives way to cooler temperatures under reliably clear skies, the draw to challenge one of the more than 1,500 climbing routes at Smith Rock is strong among outdoor enthusiasts. And while year-round climbing is possible here, when extreme temperatures and unpredictable weather conditions deter climbers, many turn to indoor rock-climbing gyms offering a range of climbing challenges such as bouldering, top rope, and lead routes.

With rock-climbing gyms providing off-season opportunities to hone in on skills and techniques all while staying warm and dry and having fun, climbing has become one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. While rock climbing is a full-body workout, at some point, most climbers will experience an upper extremity injury or issue commonly related to overuse.

Overuse is often the result of poor training habits, too much volume, repeated excessive force generation and too little rest. Factors outside of training can also contribute to an overuse injury, such as when someone’s job leads to their body enduring static postures over long periods of time, or highly repetitive movements throughout the day. These additional factors may increase an individual’s susceptibility to potential injury and overuse.

Keeping this in mind, here are our top preventative measures to improve rock climbing practices and habits. 

WARM UP BEFORE CLIMBING

One of the biggest contributors to overuse injuries is jumping right into strenuous activity. As such, the incorporation of a warm-up has numerous beneficial outcomes.

How to incorporate a warm-up:

  1. Start with 5 min of cardio/body calisthenics such as walking lunges, squats, jumping jacks, high knees, burpees, etc.).
  2. Focus on mobility — take the next 5 minutes to perform slow, controlled movements such as arm circles, wrist circles, arm swings, leg circles, ankle circles, leg swings, head rolls, finger clenches and extensions and spider lunges.
  3. Ease into it. Focus on mechanics and technique while you perform 100-150 rock-climbing moves. Many bouldering routes are 10-15 moves and are a great option to head up and down as part of your warm-up. Then, find a route that is easy for you to climb first, and move through progressively harder routes, rather than jumping right to the top end of your limit.
  4. Include the core – focus on tension and control. The major muscles in your core connect your upper and lower body, providing stability, power and endurance while ensuring you avoid putting excessive strain on your limbs. Over-gripping, poor footwork, and chicken winging can all indicate poor technique and core weakness, which can lead to unnecessary injury.
rock climbing at Smith Rock

DO MORE THAN JUST CLIMB

For a greater base of athleticism and diversity of movement and loading, it is important to train the body in multiple ways. Rock climbing develops specific movements and strengths that can result in soft tissue imbalances and potential injury of tendons and joints. Engaging in additional activities such as yoga, Pilates, swimming, trail running, paddle boarding, and others allows the body to engage in different planes of movement and balance different muscle groups. The utilization of cross-training and building muscular diversity through complementary training reduces the risk of injury due to overuse.

REST

Remember, rest time is as important as gym/training time. Physiologically, it is the rest period after training that allows for muscular development and load tolerance to tendon groups. Again, one of the largest contributors to overuse injuries is excessive volume (ie., too much all at once or too many days in a row). Go at your own pace and listen to your body – don’t work through unusual pain or fatigue. 

GET EXPERT ADVICE

Having a training plan that fits you and addresses your needs is key to success and injury prevention. When in doubt, reach out to one of our physical therapists. They can help you address lingering soreness, prevent new injuries, and develop a training plan tailored to your specific needs. Having the right training plan and rock-climbing techniques at the gym or crag will help you achieve your goals and set new ones to aspire to.

Special thanks for the Smith Rock climbing imagery in this blog to Jared Moss (banner photo) and Connor Duffy (blog photo).

Take the first step on your PT journey today.

As physical therapists, we understand movement patterns, body mechanics and training habits. Our passion is to help every patient reach their goals and live an active, pain-free life.

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